Natalka Husar: Burden of Innocence Act 2 and Act 3
March 31 – April 14, 2012
Douglas Udell Gallery, Vancouver
By Michael Harris
When Lomography (a global community whose strong passion is creative and experimental analogue film photography) became massively popular amongst hipsters in the early ‘90s, one could pass it off as a sweet affectation, like their record players and neon tank tops. But when Facebook recently decided to purchase Instagram (free photo sharing program launched in October 2010 that allows users to take a photo, apply a digital filter to it, and then share it on a variety of social networking) for $1 billion, our collective fascination with “vintage” imagery became undeniable. The whole point of Instagram, after all, is to turn digital photos into something resembling a washed out Polaroid. We reject as inaccurate cold “true” depictions of lived experience because memory itself is a sort of romance. And so we demand “romantic” picturing. Thus, the twisted lens, the tawny filters, of Lomography and Instagram.
The captivating collection of paintings that makes up Natalka Husar’s Burden of Innocence: Act 2 and Act 3 make use of Lomography and Istagram extensively. Husar a Canadian artist who lives in Toronto but has travelled extensively to her parent’s homeland in the Ukraine has constructed a cobbled-together history play, a broken portrayal of life in Ukraine and Ukrainian life in America. Her domestic scenes and headshots feel like worked-over candid photographs at times. We feel that we are missing half the photos from her scrapbook, the photos which would allow us to construct a more complete understanding of a sense of place and time.
Works like “Boss” and “Trust Me” are carefully casual. Husar’s technique is seemingly-sketchy yet it’s also nearly pointillist at times, with the shine of a man’s brow, say, or the fluff of a woman’s sweater, rendered with painstaking precision that never feels laboured or obviously worked over.
In her history play, Husar gives us three acts. In Act One, we are introduced to Husar’s alter-ego, “Nurse,” and to the artist’s abiding notion that the painted figure is enmeshed in a cyclical relationship with the painter herself. “Nurse” is both subject and subject-maker. In Act Two, “Trial,” a series of thugs is portrayed in a lineup of headshots. These morally questionable men—all large and rough and apparently violent - are given some grace via the artist’s touch. Finally, in Act Three, “Banquet,” Husar combines characters from the first two acts to produce her most interesting canvases.
For example, the large-scale “Looking at Art,” merges 1960s Americana with life in contemporary Ukraine to produce a dinner-table scene that’s as much festive as grotesque. Husar returns, still dressed as “Nurse,” to serve the table where her other subjects are dining. A tacky tablecloth is done in garish blue, which seems to be picked up in the flesh of the diners. The platter Husar carries is, itself, empty; either a funny joke or a sad comment on the impossibility of the artist’s attempts, depending on where you’re standing.
Husar’s 20-plus year art career has been largely focused on Ukraine. And we see, in these recent works, a magnum opus. She gives us vaguely miserable characters, who are redeemed by the obscuring lens of nostalgia - a lens which is easier to apply to made-up people than to actual broken souls she would have met while visiting Communist Ukraine (as she did in the 1960s). This confusion between social reality and painted nostalgia is strong: if we are meant to infer a history play here, we are not meant to figure out a fixed storyline.
Were these actual Instagram photos, or actual Lomographs, they would lack the ennobling effect that Husar can give them with paint. Husar’s works may be peopled by fictitious characters, then, but her characters have been rendered as any hard done-by person would hope to be - through a generous and obscuring veil.